How do you know if you have a great culture?

Do you have a great team?  How do know?

In his recent book The Culture Code, author Daniel Coyle suggests a pretty simple test to tell whether or not you’ve got a healthy culture that’s supporting a high performance team.  The suggestion actually comes from one of the many great teams that he studied as part of his 5 years of research for the book.  In this case, the example comes from Danny Meyer – the famous Restaurant Entrepreneur out of New York City.  In case you’re not familiar with Meyer, he’s created 24 extremely successful restaurant concepts over the last 30 years – in an environment that’s extremely difficult to succeed in.  His restaurants range from the upscale Union Square Cafe to the extremely popular burger chain – Shake Shack.  This is a guy who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to building great teams.

In one of his meetings that the author had with Meyer (of course, at one of his restaurants), their discussion was interrupted by a server dropping a tray full of dishes.  Meyer put up a finger to halt the conversation so that he could observe how his team reacted… and after a minute or two rejoined the conversation and made the following observation;

“I’m watching for what happens right afterwards, and I’m looking for their energy level to go up.  They connect to clean up the problem, and the energy level goes either up or down, and if we’re doing our job right, their energy level will go up.”

The energy level of the team goes up because they take the opportunity of the problem or the challenge to engage with each other and help out.  The energy level of the team would go down if they’re dis-engaged or just annoyed that a coworker screwed something up.  It’s a simple observation but it’s compelling.


How do you create a great culture?

It turns out there are 3 key skills that leaders and teams need to learn and use in order to create a great culture and high performance.

Skill #1 Build Safety

A strong team culture can’t exist unless people truly feel safe and comfortable with their teammates and their leaders.  Part of our human nature is that we’re wired to constantly be on the lookout for the right groups to belong to – we all want to find our tribes.  If we find it, we will let down our guard and engage.  That sense of belonging starts with a feeling of safety.

Over the course of 5 years, Coyle studied teams like Pixar Studios, IDEO, SEAL Team Six and the San Antonio Spurs among others.  Across all of these varied groups, the word they used most often to describe their relationships with coworkers is ‘Family’.  These teams all went out of their way to listen to each other, support each other and find ways to interact in deeper, more meaningful activities (deep fun vs. shallow fun).


Skill #2  Share Vulnerability

Trust is the key to high performance on teams – that’s not a surprise, but the question is how do you create that trust?  A sense of safety is a good start, but you also need vulnerability – specifically the concept of vulnerability loops.  These are moments when group members, especially the leader, share weaknesses with each other.

From a leadership perspective, that’s almost the exact opposite of your first instinct (and what we normally see). A stereotypical leader will do whatever they can to hide any weakness and portray themselves as a pillar of strength and calm.  But it turns out you need the vulnerability if you’re going to generate any trust.  Take it from Commander Dave Cooper – a Navy SEAL who made the comment; “The most important words a leader can say is ‘I screwed that up'”.

Without a recognition of problems or weaknesses, the team (and the individual) will never get any better and you’ll never be able to build any deep trust.


Skill #3  Establish Purpose

The final skill that’s required for a great team is the ability to consistently and effectively address the questions ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘What do we stand for?’.  And although the leaders of the team might feel that’s obvious information that everyone already knows, the reality is that people need to continually hear and see that information as a way of staying on track.  It’s too easy to get bogged down in day to day activities and forget the big picture without the constant reminders.

One suggestion to help with this is develop some internal catch phrases that reinforce key beliefs and use them as part of your internal operational language.  As an example at Meyer’s restaurants, the teams are constantly referencing ideas like “Loving Problems”, and “Finding the Yes” as reminders of the type of behaviors that are expected by the team.  It might sound a little hokey, but it’s an effective way to keep a team on the same page as long as you use them early and often.


How strong is your team?  When you have an issue, do you see the team come together and solve it and leave with more energy or less energy?

If you’re looking for some great ideas on how to build or improve your culture, then you should check out The Culture Code.

We’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

Shawn Kinkade   Kansas City Business Coach